Last week, the world was abuzz when theNew York Times published Andrea Elliott’s series on eleven-year-old Dasani and her family, whose poverty dictates tumult in gentrified Brooklyn.

The series impacted readers strongly: TCF friend and public education advocate Diane Ravitch, for one, called for a Pulitzer Prize.

On Sunday, TCF fellow Harold Pollack explored in Wonkblog how we might help those families who live in conditions like Dasani’s. Pollack focuses on the nuances of poverty, which present so many challenges to public policy specialists. “Homelessness raises many issues that don’t fit cleanly into the grooves of any political parable,” he writes.

Beyond “physical” or tangible challenges that the poor, especially those in homeless shelters, face—like lack of funding or bureaucratic hurdles—there is that “pathological social environment with which Dasani must contend.” A culture hostile to the poor creates inhospitable conditions for reform.

Pollack notes that while some high-need citizens are treated as patients, others–those living in poverty–are seen instead as clients:

“Patients generally receive respectful and professional services in relatively well-resourced environments. Too often, if you walk down the street to the closest social service agency or homeless shelter, you will have a very different experience. Clients are treated less respectfully, in a less supported, less professional environment, and thus receive less effective help.”

This pathology extends into the public school system, which faces rising “double segregation” by race and income. In most states, being born in a certain geographical location confines children to subpar schooling.

A 2010 TCF study of Montgomery County, Maryland schools by Heather Schwartz, depicts the county’s inclusionary zoning laws, which allow a reserved portion of all developed homes to be rented or purchased at below-market prices.

As such, low-income families—who would otherwise be relegated to lesser schools in poorer neighborhoods—can afford to live in Montgomery County, which boasts high-quality schools. Schwartz found that the low-income students assigned randomly to low-poverty schools produced better test scores than did their peers in high-poverty districts.

It is hard to overemphasize the link between poverty and education. As David Sirota notes, “two thirds of student achievement is a product of out-of-school factors–and among the most powerful of those is economic status.” Though inclusionary zoning laws are promising in terms of reform, the pathology that Pollack identifies acts as an invisible barrier to meaningful change.

For Dasani, Elliott writes, “school and life are indistinguishable. When school goes well, she is whole.” And statistics support that view: four years of quality teaching have been shown to counteract socioeconomic disadvantage.

A first step toward helping children like Dasani may be found in eliminating the gap between “patients” and “clients”–in reframing our view of those in need, and in viewing their struggles not as burdens, but as fixable, mutual challenges.

The solution may sound simple, which makes our violations of it all the more egregious: we need to maintain a sense of humanity or empathy. As Pollack writes, “[w]e know Dasani could at least go to sleep in a clean and safe place where her family is secure from strangers’ intrusions or predations. So we should at least do that.”

For more on concentrated poverty, read TCF’s latest report Concentration of Poverty in the New Millennium”by Paul Jargowsky.